The farmer who found and photographed the shapes of snow
The person who sparked the idea that “no two snowflakes are alike” was not a trained meteorologist or physicist, but a farmer. This doesn’t mean that Wilson Alwyn Bentley wasn’t a researcher, as much of his life was spent studying and carefully documenting the nature of snow crystals, plus hypothesizing about what influenced their size and shape. His work was eventually reviewed and published, not only providing insight into how snow works, but also showing that a degree isn’t strictly necessary to work as a scientist.
At age 15, Bentley’s father gave him a microscope, which he used to view snowflakes in his native Vermont. He sketched what he could, but in 1885 his father bought him a camera, enabling the twenty-year-old to take the world’s first photomicrograph of a snow crystal. This required some technical invention on Bentley’s part, using a variety of tools from pre-cooled slides to turkey feathers to maneuver the delicate snowflakes into position for a photo. Over the years, Bentley refined his technique, even going as far as altering the contrast of images by hand after they were exposed.
Aside from mastering photographic techniques, Bentley also made some analysis based on his observations. He found connections between ambient temperatures and the shape of the ice crystal. These findings were eventually confirmed and published, but not for 30 years after Bentley’s initial work.
Further work and recognition
In the mean time, Bentley did find some notoriety for his photos. They were published in various magazines and newspapers, and earned the farmer the nickname “Snowflake Bentley.” During the summers, he also turned his attention to other meteorological phenomena, namely rain. As with the snow, Bentley found that raindrop size was also influenced by the air’s temperature, as well as the altitude of the storm clouds.
Bentley continued photographing snow until he died in 1931. While his work grew more sophisticated, he always used the same camera he started with as a young man.
Source: Keith Heidorn by The Snowflake Man of Vermont, Public Domain Review